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I’ve been a long-time GNOME user, but for the past few months, I was in a loving relationship with Elementary OS. I found much to love in the minimalist Linux-based operating system, and I encouraged readers to give it a try It's Time to Try Something New: Elementary OS Loki It's Time to Try Something New: Elementary OS Loki Elementary OS isn't your typical Linux distribution. Some would say it isn't a distro at all. But is Elementary really a usable alternative to Windows and macOS as its developers claim? Read More .

But that has changed. The number of bugs I encountered grew over time, and I’ve recently had enough. As a freelance writer, the only thing I need is a working laptop. If that’s not reliable, then I’m wasting time trying to fix the one tool my job requires.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Sometimes Linux distributions that start off rock-solid get buggy after a month or two. The question is, why?

1. Not Enough Manpower

I’m not going to spend this entire piece harping on about Elementary OS. I love what the team is doing, and I admire its vision. I think what it has been able to achieve with so few people is phenomenal. But therein lies the problem. There are only a few people working on this distro.

That means the same people that are working on visual design are also squashing bugs, coding new apps, attracting developers, marketing, and doing whatever else the project needs done. That’s a lot of work for anyone to take on. It prevents someone from specializing or spending all of their time perfecting and maintaining a single piece of software. Founder Daniel Foré isn’t going it alone, but he does have to wear many different hats for the project to continue.

The Linux world is filled with small, rag-tag teams producing great work. Solus is another example that is heavily dependent on the work of a single man.

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Larger, more established distros are still impacted by this issue. Ubuntu is ubiquitous in the Linux world, and it has a massive community — but Canonical employs a relatively small number of people to make the desktop what it is. Fedora and openSUSE have been around for decades, but they lack the kind of manpower we see creating commercial desktops like Windows and macOS.

2. A Lack of Funds

Most open source software is free to use, but that doesn’t mean it’s free to make Why Linux Is Free: How the Open Source World Makes Money Why Linux Is Free: How the Open Source World Makes Money Just why is Linux and open source software free? Is it safe to trust free software? What do the developers get out of it, and how do they make money to continue development? Read More . Whether someone pays a developer, donates to a project, or spends their own time volunteering code, the end result cost somebody something. With such varied and often unreliable funding models, attracting talented work can be a problem for Linux distros and apps.

Maintaining a distro comes with plenty of unavoidable costs. Teams have to host websites, provide downloads, and distribute software. With contributors living in different parts of the world, it can cost thousands to travel and collaborate in person. If fixing a bug requires having access to certain hardware, the issue can go ignored for however long it takes a developer to get their hands on what they need. Sometimes that never happens.

I’ve used Windows long enough to know that money alone doesn’t make all bugs disappear. But a lack of money sure makes it a lot harder to make them go away.

3. No Direct Relationship With Hardware Manufacturers

As I just mentioned, that bug that affects your specific laptop model is hard for a developer to fix unless someone provides them with a similar machine. But that’s only part of the problem. Bugs don’t merely stem from developers not having the impacted hardware. Manufacturers don’t care if their machines work with Linux.

Unless your laptop came with Linux pre-installed, How You Can Help Make 2017 the Year of the Linux Desktop How You Can Help Make 2017 the Year of the Linux Desktop It doesn’t matter if Linux achieves world computing domination. What matters is that we can use it today, and it’s awesome -- and now is a great time to take the plunge! Read More there’s a good chance no one involved in making your machine tested if Linux works. They may have used a Wi-Fi card that lacks Linux compatibility, leaving you unable to get online. They may have picked a graphics card that doesn’t yet have Linux binaries, leaving you with basic features and a glitchy experience.

In that case, it’s not that your desktop environment is laden with bugs. You’re trying to run software on hardware that no one created with this code in mind. Sometimes Linux developers can reverse engineer a solution, but that doesn’t always work.

4. Reliance on Other Projects and Software

Most open source programs depend on software that someone else made. Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, doesn’t make any of the interface you see on screen. That comes from a team of contributors that may be located on the opposite side of the globe. The applications you run inside that interface likely come from a different set of developers.

People are writing code that must interact with software that they may not fully understand. The source code may be open, but who has the time to learn how every component works? And if they do spot a problem, they have to reach out to that component’s maintainer and hope they can integrate a fix.

5. No Centralization

Microsoft created the Windows kernel, the desktop environment, and the default applications. This gives the company a fair degree of control over the experience that users will encounter. If the experience isn’t polished, Microsoft can decide to postpone a release until employees fix all of the showstopper bugs. Linux distros try to do the same, but there can be major bugs that are simply out of the team’s hands.

This lack of centralization also leads to other problems. While Windows and macOS each have one primary package format, Linux has several How to Install Software on Linux: Package Formats Explained How to Install Software on Linux: Package Formats Explained You've switched to Linux, and want to install some software. But package managers differ depending on your distro. So which apps can you download and install? It's all in the acronyms. Read More . Developers may have to jump through different hoops to guarantee that their software works with each distro, and that can be a lot for one individual to support. And this is hardly the only example of duplication of effort. Linux has multiple audio frameworks, display servers, and window managers. Pretty much any component of your system can be swapped out for another, causing an app to break.

6. Bugs Are Boring

Creating software is fun. That’s partly why there’s so much duplicated effort in the open source world. Starting from scratch and “doing it right this time” stirs more excitement than weeding through existing code and knocking out the kinks.

Squashing bugs is tedious, time-consuming work. A developer can lose hours simply trying to replicate a bug before they even start trying to fix it. Then once all of that work is done, the app doesn’t have a fun new feature — it’s just more stable for the subset of users that bug may have affected. This is important work, but when a developer is unpaid, it can be hard to expect them to make the time commitment necessary to engage in such drudgery.

What Can You Do to Avoid Bugs?

All of this aside, Linux has a reputation for being more stable than Windows. If this open source operating system is capable of powering most of the world’s supercomputers Linux Is Everywhere: 10 Things You Didn't Know Were Penguin-Powered Linux Is Everywhere: 10 Things You Didn't Know Were Penguin-Powered Read More , it can handle your laptop. You just have to find the right distro.

No single option is the most stable for all users. That depends on factors ranging from what hardware you’re using to which applications you intend to run. But it’s a good bet to go with a well-established distro, from a team that has the resources to keep things running smoothly.

I’ve gone back to Fedora, and I’m again using GNOME as my desktop environment. As part of Red Hat’s giant Linux ecosystem, Fedora is one of the most supported distros. GNOME may not be quite as minimalist as Elementary OS 7 Ways Linux Enhances Productivity for the Digital Minimalist 7 Ways Linux Enhances Productivity for the Digital Minimalist Minimalists feel that removing life's clutter creates space for what matters. These are some of the ways the freedom of open source software can help you simplify your digital life. Read More , but it’s pretty darn close. And as one of the oldest open source desktop environments on Linux, the community of users that can spot bugs is significantly larger. Plus Wayland in Fedora 25 is pretty darn fast Fedora 25 Has Arrived: Here's What's Changed Fedora 25 Has Arrived: Here's What's Changed Fedora 25 delivers the latest from the GNOME project, but what's the story with the new display server, Wayland? Is the next generation display server really ready for prime time? Read More .

My Choice of Linux

That’s the choice I’ve made, but I’m not saying it’s the best. openSUSE is another distro with plenty of financial support. If you would rather use a Linux operating system that doesn’t have a company attached, Debian has the support of such a large community that you won’t be missing out. Ubuntu (based on Debian) is the most well-known version of desktop Linux out there, so when bugs do arise, you can usually find a fix if you search long enough.

Though if you really want to address the problem, file bug reports. Even if you can’t write a fix yourself, writing detailed descriptions of issues is a big help.

What Linux distro do you use? What bugs have you encountered? Have any tips for users banging their heads against the wall in frustration? Let’s get a conversation going in the comments below!

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  1. klu9
    March 30, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    Is there any way to donate money to a general Linux/BSD ecosystem (kernel, userland, WM/DE, programs etc) bug-hunting fund? Because if there is, I'd donate.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      March 31, 2017 at 3:31 pm

      Not that I know of. You can donate to the Linux Foundation, the GNOME Foundation, KDE e.V., or individual applications, but I don't think you can specify that they use the funds only for bugs. You can also try your hand with a site like Bountysource.

  2. Heimen Stoffels
    March 30, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    Please, don't write incorrect articles. Solus is not depended on the work of a single man but on the work of a handful of people. Ikey is not the only developer, you know...

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      March 31, 2017 at 3:17 pm

      I did not mean to imply that only one person was working on Solus. By "heavily dependent," (as opposed to "entirely dependent") I meant that the project would be deeply impacted if that one person were to go away. That's the impression I was left with after watching the interview I inserted below that line. Solus, like Elementary OS, could continue to survive without their founders being involved, but both seem to depend on their founders for a good amount of work.

  3. Mike Walsh
    March 29, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    I use Puppy Linux, and ave done now for nearly 3 years. I used to use Ubuntu, but found Canonical were starting to drop support for some older hardware.....in my case, my built-in graphics chip.

    Puppy makes a point of always supporting elderly hardware, thus enabling me to run a 13-yr old Compaq desktop, and an even older Dell Inspiron laptop, from 2002.

    Puppy screams on these machines!

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      March 31, 2017 at 3:18 pm

      It's great to see such old PCs still in use. Thanks, Puppy Linux!

  4. jymm
    March 29, 2017 at 10:57 am

    I dual boot Debian Jessie 8 (Mate) and Ubuntu Mate. No real bug problems with Debian. Ubuntu Mate has a few more. I use GKrellM system monitor on both systems and it has bugs on Ubuntu Mate. It does not always load correctly ( graphics and position). Sometimes the bugs are with the software, not the OS. I switched from Firefox to Palemoon a while back. I have been going back to Firefox more often. Newer versions of Palemoon seem to be getting buggier rather than improving. Bugs will never be completely eliminated, so you learn to deal with them or finds other options.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      March 31, 2017 at 3:24 pm

      It's especially frustrating when a bug that's already fixed has made it to one distro but not another. You can't complain to the original developer, because they've already done their job. That's why I prefer to use distros that aren't dependent on another in order to remove failure points, which your experience seems to be an example of (Ubuntu Mate vs Debian).

  5. francis bickerstaff
    March 29, 2017 at 10:03 am

    I use lubuntu as i can dual boot uefi reasonably easy older machines mint lubuntu or if have problems I try pclinuxos as this seems to like some machines more than others and some less i use a hp wireless printer as it seem to work well with all os i have tried.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      March 31, 2017 at 3:25 pm

      I'm glad you've got a system that works!

  6. Korla Plankton
    March 29, 2017 at 1:42 am

    I've been a Linux user for almost 20 years. Most user-affecting bugs are the result of out of date packages, distro-specific configurations that don't like it when your use case falls too far away from what the distro expects, and package managers shooting themselves in the foot as they try to hold your hand.

    There is something to be said for any distro that closely tracks upstream, doesn't patch the hell out of everything to try and shoehorn it in to their bespoke system, and doesn't try and roll a configuration system in to the package manager. If I wanted old software that required major patching to work and came with pretty dialogs for configuration, I'd have a Mac.

    Linux is no good at being a Mac, for all the reasons you've outlined. Ubuntu chooses the wrong Intel video driver to ship for a release, and people with a certain chipset get stuck on VESA. Fedora installations are frequently DOA. I hear they've actually figured out how to upgrade between releases in a somewhat reliable way, lately, though my Fedora using friend still re-installs from scratch every time.

    I don't expect Linux to be a Mac. I expect to RTFM. I expect that I will have to give the system a poke now and then to get things updated, and I expect that this poke will be well documented and not a surprise. I expect that, by adhering to the 'release early, release often' philosophy, most things will work as upstream intends them to. If they didn't, they wouldn't be packaged. And lo and behold, Arch Linux has been meeting those expectations for years. It is by far the least problematic distro I have used. Why? Because it isn't some silly 'year of the linux desktop' project that trips all over itself in an effort to let Joe Everyman flip the bird to Apple and Microsoft.

    And now I have a system that I am so comfortable with and used to, if someone gave me a Mac I would probably smash it on the floor within an hour (Windows is less of a problem because I never try to do anything interesting on Windows.)

    So there you go. The reason some distros are so buggy is because they actively work against the open source 'bazaar' development process by trying to offer a polished, smooth product. If that's what you want, you don't want the 'bazaar', you want the 'cathedral' and OpenBSD is waiting for you.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      April 7, 2017 at 3:45 pm

      Thanks for such fleshed out feedback!

      Installing from scratch to upgrade isn't really all that much work once you get used to it, especially if you have a dedicated home partition. That aside, I didn't have problems upgrading between Fedora releases when I tried recently.

      Curious. Do you believe that if people aren't ready for a distro like Arch, they shouldn't use Linux?

      • Korla Plankton
        April 10, 2017 at 3:46 pm

        Hi Bertel,

        I'm no judge of whether someone should use Linux but I would like them to try, whatever the distro. I sought only to provide my thoughts on why some distros are buggy based on my experience with Arch and release-based distros.

        The crux of my comment was that a lot of the bugs you see are ironically the result of distros trying to provide as 'nice' an experience as possible in their various ways. Also, that the typical BSD development style (the 'cathedral') is more appropriately suited to this goal.

  7. Ed Carp
    March 29, 2017 at 1:36 am

    I use Linux Mint on my desktop, and Turnkey Linux for my servers. Fast, stable desktop (I use xfce, but you have several choices), and unlike Ubuntu, you don't have to have the latest and greatest hardware to make it run fast.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      March 29, 2017 at 9:21 am

      Many of our readers would agree with you that Mint is the way to go. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Cirdan
    March 28, 2017 at 11:48 pm

    Stop spreading FUD. Don't scare away the noobs. They could finally be free of their corporate masters.

    Linux distros are what they are.

    Stick with something solid like Linux Mint and it's more likely to work with old hardware than a new (supported) MS Windows OS. Also, Mint sets its updates to not break things... Like not updating kernels, unless you tell it to.

    So give it a try on your old hardware. Blow out the Windows XP or Vista -- nuke and pave over your old viruses (AFTER you make a complete backup of your data on external media AND CHECK IT). Then enjoy the penguiny minty goodness.

    ...Cirdan...

    • Ed Carp
      March 29, 2017 at 1:37 am

      Mint is awesome :)

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      March 29, 2017 at 9:18 am

      My goal here is not to scare away anyone from using Linux, which is why I suggest people check out other distros if their current one is too buggy -- the same way you've recommended Mint (a great recommendation, by the way). Part of why I stick with Linux is the more stable experience. Windows crashing and the loss of all of my data was the catalyst that caused me to go full Linux many years ago.

      The goal of this post is to educate people on some of the myriad of reasons why they may encounter bugs. On Windows, you blame Microsoft or a specific app's developer. On macOS, you complain to Apple. On Linux, the situation isn't so straightforward. I hope people walk away from this with more patience and appreciation for how things work in the free software world.

  9. Jeffrey Johnson
    March 28, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    Currently using Budgie Remix based on Ubuntu 16.10. problem I have is new kernels break my boot process. Have full drive encryption with LVM volumes and original kernel works fine. Second updated kernel left out crypt support, second updated kernel decrypts but can't read LVM configuration. Ughh. What a PITA!

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      March 29, 2017 at 9:20 am

      Ouch! I hope that gets resolved soon!